UE Workers Threaten to Block Auction at Shuttered Factory

Kari Lydersen

UPDATE: The action has been called off, as Peter Knowlton of UE Local 204 explains below. Please check this blog on Friday for more details from Roger Bybee. Knowlton said:

Over this past weekend Esterline Technologies, due to the local’s struggle, improved its severance offer to UE Local 204 members…The company proposal, however, also included the threat of the loss of severance if the union stopped the auction. The UE Local 204 executive board voted last night to accept the company’s improved severance offer and to call off the action…The membership will be taking a vote on the improved offer Friday….

When workers at Republic Windows and Doors occupied their Chicago plant two years ago, it was a surprise action that quickly attracted the attention of unionists, journalists and supporters worldwide.

Now 85 workers with the same union, the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), are planning direct action at an aircraft seals factory in Taunton, Mass., that closed in October. But this time they’re giving advance notice in hopes of delaying the auction of machinery that workers want to keep in order to re-open the factory.

That auction is scheduled for this Wednesday, January 19, at 10 a.m. On Friday, UE said it will try to stop the event from taking place. They have the unanimous support of the city council and other local, state and national elected officials. An independent feasibility study they’ve commissioned indicates a worker-run company could be successful.

Nonetheless the company, Washington state-based Esterline Technologies Inc., is planning to auction off the machinery. (Read Roger Bybee’s in-depth posts on the situation here and here.)

The city council voted unanimously to petition the state legislature to give the city home rule authority to use eminent domain to take possession of the factory and machinery. But the state legislature does not go into session until January 21, two days after Esterline plans to auction off the machinery. Esterline had previously set an auction date of December 14, moving it back a month as a compromise to the union’s request for a February 15 date.

UE Local 204 has been seeking Esterline’s support in reopening the plant since the closing plans were announced in December 2009, and the union has hired the former president of the plant as a consultant. The work previously done at the plant has been moved to California and Mexico, but the machinery has not. The company wants to sell it. 

In 2002, Esterline purchased the 80-year-old factory, which makes silicone seals for military and commercial aircraft. Many employees had decades of service there – a quarter had 34 years or more. A local paper quoted long-time workers:

It’s heart-wrenching,” said 58-year-old Pauline Arguin, a Haskon worker for 39 years who most recently had operated a CNC, or computer numerically controlled knife cutter. Her sister Doreen Arguin, 60, had invested 41 years of her life working at the Haskon site…“It’s been worse having all of this time to think about it,” Arguin said.

Congressman Barney Frank, whose district includes the factory, led a march of workers and called for legislative proceedings to see if Esterline’s actions are legal. Frank has threatened to block future military contracts to Esterline, telling local media:

I think they set a record for being outrageous and mean; they obviously have no interest in cooperating,..They have no heart and almost seen to enjoy what they’ve been doing…They’ve kicked the workers in the teeth [and] I’m going to dog this company so that they don’t have an easy road ahead.

Last fall the union fought the company to force them to pay for 90-day post-employment health coverage, and they filed grievances over severance pay they say is less than owed. Workers were also evicted from the plant several days earlier than scheduled and a 24-hour police detail was brought in; union leaders think this was because of the conflict over the health coverage and severance.

Along with the 85 union members, 15 non-union employees lost their jobs. One of them, Alan Thadeu, told local media: My heart really goes out to the union people — they’re the ones who built this place.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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